Golf: You meet people

One of the best things about attending a golf tournament is the people one encounters. I attended the Bell Canadian Open at the Royal Montreal Golf club recently, and there was no telling whom I might find around the next tree or green.

Jim Nelford, for example. Nelford works for television golf telecasts now, and does some teaching as well. He’s from Vancouver, and won the 1975 and 1976 Canadian Amateurs. I played a practice round with Nelford prior to the 1977 British Amateur at the Ganton Golf Club in Scarborough, England. I lost in the first round of match play and he went to the fifth. We’ve stayed in touch, but only intermittently.

But at Royal Montreal we chatted at length, particularly about his play at the same course during the 1980 Canadian Open. Nelford, then 24, was at two-under par 138 after two rounds, good enough to put him in the last group in the third round with Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino.

Nelford’s done okay
But Nelford wasn’t sure of his swing, and shot 78 that round and 74 the fourth round. He remembered the situation well when we chatted at Royal Montreal.

“I was just looking for anything,” Nelford recalle “I ended up in the worst possible group for the way I was playing, and it showed.”

But that was a long time ago. Nelford has been through a lot since, including a water-skiing accident in 1985 that effectively ended his playing career. Still, he’s done okay for himself, and is a highly respected golf commentator now. In addition to his work on Canadian television he also works for CNBC’s telecasts of the Senior PGA Tour.

Watched Chretien
We had a nice visit, and then I moved on. I wanted to catch the last hole or two of the pro-am round one Jean Chretien was playing with Tiger Woods. I’d been out with them at 7 AM when they started. Chretien had hit a pretty good tee shot off the first hole, and now he was on the last green facing a three-foot putt for par. He made it.

“It was sensational,” the Prime Minister said of his round with Woods, who shot six-under par 64.

“I’ve never played with a head of state,” Woods said. “It has to be a great release [for a head of state] to play some golf, just to take out your frustrations on the little white ball.”

Watching pro-am golf
I’ve been watching golfers take out their frustrations on the little white ball for some 30 years now, and never are amateurs more anxious than when teeing it up in pro-am rounds. It’s a war zone out there, golf balls bouncing off trees and sometimes off people. Still, it’s all in fun, and besides, where else would one find a Prime Minister and the world’s most popular athlete sharing the same ground?

But one runs into more people than pro golfers and heads of state at tournaments. When I attended my first Masters 20 years ago I hoped to run into Herbert Warren Wind, whose essays in The New Yorker I’d enjoyed for a long time. Wind was the consummate golf writer in my view. We met, and he showed me a few things that I had to do during my first Masters.

Take a look
One thing he showed me was to take a look around the clubhouse at Augusta National, if only to see clubs that the legendary amateur Bobby Jones had used. I had to go out to the par-three 12th and watch players get befuddled as they tried to figure out the wind blowing through the pines there, and how it would affect their ball flight as they tried to hit across Rae’s Creek.

Wind and I talked over the years, and I continue to read over the elegant essays he wrote for The New Yorker. The man could tell a story, and he should be required reading for any aspiring golf writer. Of course he had plenty of pages and words in The New Yorker. As I said, he wrote essays.

Meeting golf teachers
It goes almost without saying that a golf writer would meet many other golf writers at tournaments, as I have. I’ve also run into more teachers than I can count, and heard more swing thoughts than one would think exist.

There was the classy Jack Grout, who was Jack Nicklaus’s only teacher since the Golden Bear was 10 years old. And David Leadbetter, who helped Nick Faldo and Nick Price win major championships. Rick Smith, who worked with Lee Janzen, a golfer who would go on to win the U.S. Open. And on and on.

Sandra Post coaches
Meanwhile, back at Royal Montreal, I encountered Sandra Post, who won nine LPGA Tour events. The Oakville, Ontario native works on golf telecasts herself now, coaches young promising Canadians and older Canadians who aren’t so promising, and still holds the title of Canada’s best female professional ever.

There’s no end to the meetings at a golf tournament, then, and most are announced and unintended. You just have to be there. I feel fortunate to have been there for 30 years, and look forward to many more unexpected meetings. Hmmm, Bill Clinton, perhaps? He was in Toronto recently for some golf, after all. As I say, you never know who might show up at a golf course, because the game seems to appeal to everybody.